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10. Truly Comfortable

 It is wisdom that enables letting go of a lesser happiness
in pursuit of a happiness which is greater.

Dhammapada verse 290

During my years at High School I received regular encouragement to enter the annual speech contest, organised by the local Rotary Club. I think my parents’ encouragement was partly to do with preparing me for my hopefully taking up the family tradition of becoming a Protestant preacher. Whatever the motivation, I benefited from the challenge. There were two years in which I recall doing quite well. In one I spoke about a hero of mine at that time, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and in the other I spoke on the subject of whether religion should be comforting or challenging. I remain interested in both of these subjects but on this occasion I would like to take up the latter as the subject of my talk: should religion be comforting or challenging? This concern warrants consideration whatever stage in practice we may be at. What is it that we are looking for in our experience of religion? Are we looking for comfort? Are we looking for a consoling message? Or does our religion challenge us? And what do we think that it ought to be doing? My own commitment has been born of an enthusiastic interest in both of these things – in finding real comfort and skilful challenges.

Finding comfort in the Dhamma

How is the experience of religion comforting, or how should it be so? In the Buddhist scriptures as well as in everyday experience we find that the impulse to engage with the inner life, the spiritual life, is often prompted by suffering. This was as true in the time of the Buddha as it is these days – dissatisfaction or unhappiness causes beings to look for something more than the happiness that comes with sensual gratification. We are told that it wasn’t pleasure that inspired the Buddha to take up the life of renunciation in pursuit of liberation. It was the despair that arose out of seeing old age, sickness and death. Seeing these took the Buddha-to-be into a state of despondency as he thought, ‘Are these things going to happen to me too?’ And then inspiration and hope arose when the Buddha-to-be, the bodhisatta, saw a renunciate, a seeker, somebody engaged in a life concerned with seeking an alternative to pain and despair.

It must be understood, however, that the reason the bodhisatta was able to embark on the arduous and life-threatening task of uncovering the path to liberation was because he was ready to do so. In the records of the Buddha’s own comments on his path of practice we are told that he spent many life-times cultivating patience, loving-kindness, renunciation and many other virtues so he would have the strength to take up this task. One of the things I take from such stories is the encouragement to cultivate the necessary strengths needed on the journey. Learning to be comfortable with ourselves is one aspect of cultivating strength.

Finding Comfort with Friends

Today a group of people came to the monastery to inter someone’s ashes. There was great sadness because it was a young man who had died. It was a tragic death, and there was real grief felt by family and friends. We all know that Buddhism teaches that we suffer because we are attached. But it would be altogether inappropriate to confront people who are suffering at such a time with this teaching. If you have lost somebody dear to you, and you go to your Buddhist friends for some solace and comfort, and they tell you, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have got attached to them in the first place! Everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self!’, it would be grossly insensitive.

We look for comfort when we are suffering, and I feel that it is right to look for it in the various skilful means and practices that are offered as part of Buddhism. Besides the pain that comes from loss there is a lot in the world around us that causes us to suffer. The current global environmental situation, the various military conflicts, the ongoing struggles we see in peoples’ lives – acute crises or just everyday mediocrity – all this can leave us feeling terribly saddened. If, with the heart burdened by sadness, we attempt to turn towards the deeper causes of suffering before we are ready, we could sink further into despair. Sometimes what we need is to find friends and companions who are not going to condemn us for suffering. Our suffering is not a sign that we’re failing; it’s not an indictment. However, it is only too easy to fall for the worldly perspective that says if we are suffering we are failing. If we are upset then we’re supposed to get over it. But there are some things we just don’t get over. Some pain doesn’t heal in the way we wish or at the time we want. At such times, to have a friend, somebody who shows a willing receptivity to our suffering, is a very great comfort. Spiritual companions, kalyanamittas, are one of the most important comforts in life.


It’s also important to have places that we can go, places like this monastery, which are sanctuaries. I feel strongly that to have a place like this to go to, a place consecrated to truth and reality, is a great solace. You don’t have to be famous or popular or good-looking or wealthy to go to a monastery; the doors are open, and there’s no charge for staying. You can bring your suffering, offer it up and feel it received. This is a great comfort and a skilful way of dealing with suffering. And as one teacher I lived with told us, “Don’t wait until you have a problem before establishing a relationship.” He was talking at the time about relating to a teacher but the principle holds true for a place of sanctuary as well. Just as when we move into a new town we would sensibly find ourselves a good doctor and not wait until we were sick, it is likewise sensible to become acquainted with places and groups that might be available to us before we find ourselves feeling challenged.

The place of ritual

The ritual practices that we’re encouraged to cultivate are also skilful ways of finding comfort in practice. Dedicating puñña or merit is something that one can do, particularly at funerals and such sad occasions, when we might feel helpless in the face of our suffering. The people who came today – there was nothing they could do to bring back their son, their brother, their friend, who had passed away. But to be able to do something wholesome, to generate some goodness, is comforting. A traditional Buddhist way of generating goodness is to come to the monastery, a place dedicated to reality, and to make a gesture of support to the place and to the monks and nuns who live there. And then one can dedicate the goodness or merit of this act to the person who has died.

This idea may not feel immediately appealing or comforting because it’s not something that we are familiar with, but when one does such things as skilful means there can nevertheless be a surprising sense of comfort when the heart exercises its ability to generate goodness. We can do good deeds by way of body, speech and mind; through acts of kindness, through restraint, through generosity, through cultivating honesty and impeccability – these wholesome actions generate a storehouse of goodness that we can then dedicate. The last act I perform each day before going to bed is to dedicate to all beings whatever goodness I might have created by way of body, speech or mind. I spend some time going through ‘all beings’ – from my teachers, parents, companions, friends, rulers, enemies … Sometimes it can take a while and when I am tired and want to get to bed I might cut it a bit shorter but I rarely, if ever, miss out the practice. It is very important to me.

There are also the meditations on loving-kindness and compassion. These clear, concrete practices generate a tangible sense of comfort that strengthens us inwardly. We do need to know that we have things we can do to generate such inner well-being. It is not the case that we are always ready to turn around and ask of ourselves the deepest questions regarding the causes of suffering.

Chanting is another profoundly comforting thing to do. In times of great despair or grief we can still chant. When I knew my father was in hospital, having had a series of strokes, I felt painfully helpless in being unable to offer any meaningful support at a time when I really wanted to. It was made worse in finding that there was nothing I could do to settle my mind in meditation. However, chanting did help. On that occasion I felt very grateful that I had been encouraged to learn to recite some of the suttas. Even though I wasn’t seeing reality, I could recite these verses about reality, about truth. The act of recitation was a source of real comfort.

The Buddha taught that we need to exercise discernment in choosing the appropriate time and place before going deeper into the true causes of suffering. If someone is hungry, for instance, you should feed them before teaching them Dhamma. He instructed the monks that they shouldn’t teach people with empty bellies that the cause of their suffering was their ignorance of the Four Noble Truths! The decent thing to do, of course, was to feed them first. If we maintain a clear awareness of what is going on in each and every situation, with the right motivation in our heart we will intuitively know what the appropriate way to behave is. Appropriate action follows from seeing the correct context of things and then acting accordingly. Although the Buddha’s teaching encourages us to challenge ourselves to enquire into how we are creating our own suffering, this sometimes arduous work can only be undertaken in the context of inner well-being.

First comfort, then challenge

So certainly it is the place of religion to offer comfort and solace to people when needed. But herein lies a paradox: We need to know how to make ourselves feel good and strong in wholesome ways, but attachment to those very good feelings is what keeps us stuck. We make our lives comfortable by according with our natural preferences. We prefer not to be sad, not to be uncomfortable, hungry, miserable, depressed or lonely. Having good friends, physical health and emotional comfort are natural ways of being happy, but the practice of purification means going against our preferences, countering the belief that we need these comforts to be happy. If we don’t understand how these different dimensions of spiritual practice function – if we don’t understand the place of comfort through having our preferences met, and the place of challenge that comes through going against our preferences – then we can get confused. If we try to engage with the teachings of the Buddha or any great spiritual master who challenges our usual preferences, yet while doing this we feel inwardly depleted and diminished, without confidence and well-being, we can make ourselves feel a whole lot worse.

Going against preferences

The practice of purification requires our coming to see the reality of preferences very clearly. And this inevitably involves the challenge of countering our desires. There needs to be a context of contentment for us to do this, but at the same time going against preferences is not going to be comfortable. It’s important to understand this, because when we apply ourselves to practices that challenge us, and we feel unhappy or discontented, we can think that something is going wrong.

I have many times quoted to people something I read in a book by Thomas Merton during my first years as a monk. As sometimes happens, hearing a description of the process one is involved in from the perspective of another tradition can bring about greater clarity. In his book, New Seeds for Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes –

What a holocaust takes place in the steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalisations. The worst of it is that even the apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the centre, the existential altar which simply “is”.

For contemplative life to deepen we do need to be willing to have our comfort challenged.

… Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial doubt. This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but passive acceptance of conventional opinion. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds for Contemplation, New York, New Directions Pub., 1974)

Making preference conscious

The wise way to relate to our preferences is to recognise that everyone has them but that, when they are not understood, they limit our experience. We all prefer to have agreeable sensations – it’s completely natural to have bodily preferences. In meditation for example, we are encouraged to be still, to discipline the body, to focus attention until body and mind are in harmony and we attain to one-pointedness. In the tranquillity of such samadhi one is able to read the mind’s reality quite differently from when body and mind are distracted and dissipated. We are encouraged to cultivate this one-pointedness, and when we experience it there is no doubt about its value. Yet to reach such stillness, there has to be restraint. When we sit still, the body often feels uncomfortable, and this discomfort doesn’t accord with our preferences. If we don’t understand that our preferences need to be countered, then we won’t be able to get to this one-pointedness with which we can more accurately read reality. We will feel uncomfortable, get distracted and move.

We don’t go against our preferences because there’s anything inherently wrong with preferences. In truth that which is causing the problem is the way we relate to our preferences. We counter them so we are not pushed around by them. Our enjoyment of pleasure is natural and yet we get ourselves into all sorts of tangles in our pursuit of it. If we are suffering as a result of our pursuit of pleasure, an initial attitude might be to take a position against pleasure; we interpret the Buddha’s teachings as saying that our preference for pleasure over pain is in itself the cause of suffering. If this is our motivation for practice, again we could cause ourselves more troubles. We should remember the exhortation to exercise extreme care in how we pick up the teachings. In the chant we recite together in the monastery every two weeks after the recitation of the Patimokkha rules there is a verse that says: ‘This training wrongly held will lead to increased pain, just as kusa grass wrongly-grasped will cut the hand’. Kusa grass is a tough grass they have in India that has a sharp edge. I’m sure you get the picture. More immediately we could talk about going out to cut the grass along the edge of the walking meditation tracks in the walled garden and, instead of picking up the sickle by the handle, heedlessly picking it up by the blade; we’d cut our hand. Not only will we have increased our suffering, but also now we won’t be able to cut the grass.

The Buddha’s metaphor for picking up the training on restraint rightly applies especially to the training in celibacy. Making the choice to renounce intentional sexual activity is not a recipe for an easy life. Buddhist scriptures and our own European monastic records are filled with stories of tragic misadventure on this path. So our training is always emphasising mindfulness in our efforts to be restrained. Feelings of sexual interest are not to be blindly controlled with will, nor are they to be dismissed with habitual judgement as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ as the case may be. Rather they are to be fully received with awareness and sensitivity, as they manifest. They are simply to be known but not followed. In this way restraint of the untamed passions is exercised, energy is contained and made available for the process of purifying the heart of greed, aversion and delusion. We are going against our conditioned superficial preferences, but in a way that leads to freedom, not more stress.

Another type of comfort

So the tools of spiritual discipline must be picked up in the right way. The challenges to our preferences need to be grasped with right understanding. If we always cultivate feeling comfortable, if we always give ourselves what we want when we want it, then the chances are that we will never get to see preferences as preferences. We will never get to see our likes and dislikes as merely conditioned tendencies of mind. If we always follow our preferences then we will always feel like they are ‘me’. Every time I give myself what I want, ‘I’ feel gratified, and this ‘I’ grows a little bigger and a little happier. And every time I succeed in avoiding that which I don’t like, ‘I’ feel a little more pleased with myself. But the way of the Dhamma is not always to give ourselves what we want, and not always to turn away from that which we don’t like. In this way we go against our preferences in order to see their conditioned nature. By practising according to these principles we discover the possibility of another level of comfort.

There is an initial level of comfort or happiness that comes from gratifying our desires and according with our preferences, and there is another level of happiness which comes as a direct result of our willingness to go against desires – from knowing that we don’t have to gratify our desires – from understanding that all our preferences are conditioned. That’s why I say that purification, the primary spiritual activity, means opposing preferences in order to learn about the greater comfort that is the heart being at ease with itself. Such comfort is not merely physical, mental or emotional, but is a contentment in the core of our being that arises with understanding, with seeing clearly.

Some years ago I accepted an invitation to visit a friend in Beijing with the aim of going together with him to Kyoto in Japan. I had wanted to go to Japan for as long as I could remember and since my friend was working in China and I was en route from visiting family in New Zealand back to the UK, it wasn’t too big a deviation to stop off in China. The thought of going there occupied my mind for a long time in advance. The idea of getting to Japan at last, and seeing those beautiful gardens and temples in Kyoto, was wonderful. But as it happened my connecting flight from Shanghai to Beijing was cancelled. I found myself alone in the airport without any money and with nowhere to stay. It was quite an ordeal, with teams of angry Chinese travellers competing for empty seats on later flights. Almost nobody spoke English and they were not at all impressed with my commitment to the holy-life! Eventually, after nearly losing my passport and standing outside on the tarmac for a long time in the freezing February night, I boarded a very cramped plane and made it to Beijing. But then our baggage was mislaid, and it was not until two the following morning that I got to bed. Meanwhile my friend had returned from a meeting in Hong Kong in which he had been subject to a flagrant betrayal of trust by a co-worker, and his flight had also been delayed. When we woke in the morning we both had sore throats and were thoroughly miserable. When we broached the matter of going to Kyoto it became obvious that neither of us was feeling up to it. After so much planning and anticipation, the thought of not going should have appeared unthinkable. With so much momentum I expected it to be so. But to my surprise and pleasure it was perfectly thinkable. So we decided not to go to Japan.

In meditation that evening I had such a happy feeling knowing that I didn’t have to get what I wanted. There was a clear recognition that the pleasure that comes with the gratification of desire was inferior to the pleasure associated with the freedom of not having to get what I want. There is a verse in the Dhammapada that reads: ‘It is wisdom that enables letting go of a lesser happiness in pursuit of a greater happiness’. That evening I came a little closer to understanding this aspect of the Buddha’s wisdom. As things worked out, by the following morning we both felt fine again, made a dash for the airport and had a marvellous time in Kyoto.

The point of balance

If we pick up in the wrong way the Buddha’s teachings about going against our preferences, by thinking that there is some inherent virtue in following our dislikes, then we can hurt ourselves. The Buddha himself, before he was enlightened, followed the path of self-mortification for some years. It made him very unhappy and he nearly died in the process. In the end he realised, ‘Well, that’s not the end of suffering.’ He had already concluded that gratifying his desires and making his life as comfortable as possible didn’t lead to true understanding, because when he had encountered old age, sickness and death, he had become depressed and miserable. But practising asceticism and deliberately frustrating his desires hadn’t solved the problem either. In the end he committed himself to settling the matter once and for all and, seated resolutely under the Bodhi tree, made his final determined effort to awaken. Relying on the accumulation of goodness over many lifetimes, he was able to come to the point of seeing for himself that taking any fixed position for or against his likes and dislikes creates suffering. Learning how not to take a position for or against anything is freedom. The Buddha called his discovery the Middle Way.

This Middle Way, the Buddha said, is born of right understanding regarding the nature of things. But to understand this nature we need to go against our preferences. In the training of sila, we make the effort to refrain from following heedless tendencies. In formal meditation we train ourselves in not moving whenever there is an impulse to do so, and we restrain our minds, containing our attention when the mind’s tendency is to follow some preference. We want to know, ‘Can I choose not to compulsively follow this desire, this preference?’

In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta the Buddha describes the meditator who, experiencing pleasure, just sits with awareness, simply knowing that there is pleasure without adding anything to it or taking anything away from it. But how do we reach the point of knowing there is pleasure without indulging in it, pursuing it and working out how we can get more of it? We get to that point through restraining ourselves. When pleasurable sensations arise, our habits are such that we usually just want to have more of them. There’s an impulse to seek pleasure, based on a preference for pleasurable experience. But if we habitually and blindly follow such a preference there is an unfortunate consequence: when there is suffering, we are not able to restrain ourselves from contending with the pain. If we indulge in an habitual preference for more pleasure, we will habitually make a problem out of pain. But right understanding arises when we become interested in the reality of our preferences. When pleasure arises, are we able to inhibit the tendency to seek more pleasure? – not because we have any opinion about desire, but because we are interested in the reality of desire? Rather than being driven into gratifying our desires we then start to feel drawn towards a freedom from blind habit.

If we don’t understand that Buddhist practice requires us to challenge our preferences then we will feel that pleasure is either something to follow or something to resist or judge. We won’t suspect that there is a middle way between these two options. The teaching of the Middle Way is an encouragement for us to challenge our preferences, to undermine the agreeable and disagreeable appearances of things.

Sometimes we experience real pain and suffering. I don’t mean just a little pain in the knees; I mean the sense that the bottom has fallen out of our world. The apparent reality is that this pain is going to last forever. We think, ‘I can’t stand this, I can’t handle it.’ And of course, we would prefer it not to be this way. But the Dhamma invites us to inhibit the compulsive tendency to be driven into trying to change the situation. Instead, we willingly receive the way this pain expresses itself, just as it is. This is the path of insight practice into the reality of the way things are.

If we remain convinced by the apparent nature of things, if we don’t have faith in this path of practice, then this pain, disappointment, despair, sadness, grief appears permanent and real, and we will believe that we have to do something to solve it or get out of it; anything would be better than being with it. But lacking the commitment to stay with pain, in awareness, we can’t see through the way it appears.

The body’s natural preferences

The Dhamma encourages us to generate the understanding we need in order to go against our preferences out of an interest in seeing through into their conditioned nature. There are bodily preferences and mental preferences, and sometimes there isn’t much we can do about changing the body’s preferences; they’re programmed in the body. I prefer peanut butter and Manuka honey on toast for breakfast rather than fermented fish, as people seem to prefer in Thailand. As long as I live, I am sure that I won’t find fish and chillies more agreeable than peanut butter and honey on crunchy toasted brown bread, at any time for that matter. But this level of preference does not have to be a problem, so long as we know it is simply a bodily preference. It is merely due to our upbringing. What we can change though, is how we see our preferences.

If I had an uninformed ignorant relationship to my preferences, and an anagarika came into my kuti in the morning to bring me nice toast for breakfast, then I might get lost in my pleasure. I might pay the anagarika compliments, telling him what a fine anagarika he was and how well he was doing. And I would encourage him to bring such toast again the next morning. Then, if the next day he brought me fermented fish for breakfast, I might well fly off the handle and say something hurtful. My uninspected preferences being frustrated would lead to my being upset. If ‘I’ habitually get what ‘I’ want, ‘I’ can get caught up in my preferences. That’s an ignorant relationship to preferences.

In the breakfast situation, were I to remain true to my commitment to going beyond attachment to my preferences, practice would stimulate the willingness to simply feel what it feels like to be disappointed when I don’t get what I want. Then we see that such willingness to receive pain leads to increased presence and clarity in the context of pleasure. We find we are not getting so lost in pleasure and pain. Encountering our preferences is a way to strengthen cultivation of mindfulness, not merely a strategy of driving out unsuitable desires.

If there is a wise and informed relationship to preferences we will be willing to inhibit our tendency to believe in the way things appear for long enough to be able to see through them. We will see that desire is a movement in the mind. It arises, it appears, it can be felt, it can be received into awareness without judgement, and it will disappear, like a piece of dust floating through space. The space doesn’t interfere with the dust nor is it disturbed by the dust floating through it. A wave rippling across the ocean doesn’t change the nature of the ocean; it’s natural for an ocean to have waves moving across it. But the wave doesn’t define the nature of the ocean. Likewise a desire passing through the mind does not define the mind. If we have seen this, if we have inhibited our tendency to follow our preferences for long enough to see through the way desire arises and passes away, then we have a much freer perspective on preferences.

Whether toast and honey or fermented fish turns up for breakfast, whether this is agreeable or disagreeable to one’s bodily preferences, the heart will not become elated or depressed. That’s the important principle: that we are able to see through our preferences so that the heart remains free. If we understand and accept this principle then we can be willing to endure whatever is disagreeable to us. We won’t always look for life to be agreeable. We won’t say, ‘I had a really good meditation,’ just because it felt pleasant. I often hear people asking, ‘how was your meditation?’ Their friend then replies something like, ‘hopeless, really terrible.’ If I ask them, ‘what was hopeless about it?’ they say, ‘Well, the mind wouldn’t settle. There were no peaceful feelings, no clarity.’ And I ask, ‘Did you know that it wasn’t peaceful? Did you know that there wasn’t any clarity?’ Then they say, ‘Yes, I knew.’ So what makes such a meditation terrible? Only that it didn’t agree with their preferences. If someone says to me, ‘The meditation was very good, the body alert and energetic, the mind bright and clear. My practice is going really well,’ what they usually mean is that it agreed with their preference.


Training involves a conscious willingness to go against our preferences. It does not mean merely upholding a philosophical opinion that gratifying our desires is wrong. This would be only a conceptual approach to training. Training means discovering a willingness to go against our preferences for the sake of understanding, so that we can find freedom from them. We might not manage to change our preferences, but we find a freedom from being driven by them.

I would prefer that the world be harmonious and that everybody got on with everyone else. The reality is that there is a lot of conflict. My preference is frustrated, but does that mean that I have to fall into despair? If I do fall into despair, from the Buddha’s perspective, that’s the result of an ignorant way of relating to preferences. A wise way of relating would mean that we still feel sadness and disappointment, but they do not obstruct inner clarity and calm. Our discernment is not compromised; our capacity for contemplating the predicament we’re in is not compromised by the way we feel.

When we have truly settled into practice and internalised this principle of training ourselves to go against our preferences, we don’t approach life looking for it to be agreeable or perceive it as a failure because it is disagreeable. We don’t approach our meditation expecting it to be pleasant. If we go on retreat and we don’t have the profound insights we hoped for, we won’t feel the retreat to be a failure. When our relationships feel strained and we’re not getting on with each other, we won’t say it’s all going wrong. We feel pain, and this is disagreeable, but to think that there is anything wrong with this is to add something unnecessary to the experience. It might be painful, but if we have a willingness to approach that pain with interest, to challenge our preferences, then from the Buddha’s perspective we’re on the path that leads to understanding.

There is a happiness that comes from seeing through something that used to appear threatening. When you experience a clarity that is born of understanding that desire is not the way it appears to be, that pain is not the way it appears to be, then you can allow all sorts of previously uncomfortable phenomena into your mind. In the beginning of practice, when you were a little sensitive to what goes on in the mind, you might have noticed that it was full of all sorts of unwholesome desires. Perhaps you started to feel ashamed about some of the tendencies of your mind, but that’s because you were still caught up in them. If we practise rightly, restraining the tendency to follow these things, and if we study them and observe them, then maybe one day we will see through them. Desire or ill will or fear can arise in the mind yet we will remain clear, confident and open as we sit with awareness. We abide as the awareness in which these states are taking place. They pass through awareness; they arise, they are there, and then they cease, but we’re not disturbed by them. When we begin to experience this, the heart is learning to abide in another level of comfort altogether.

Thank you very much for your attention.



© 2005 Aruna Publications